• James E Aarons DVM

Outside Chauvet Cave


Rory and Katie were standing with others outside Chauvet Cave. Marol was being filmed for an opening sequence.

“I am standing on a limestone outcropping in southern France above tidy vineyards carpeting the Ardèche Valley. In a few minutes," began the attractive woman with long, silvery blonde hair. "We will walk into prehistory, exploring the Cave of Forgotten Dreams, humankind’s earliest church.” She wore a one-piece jumpsuit that zipped closed at the front and spoke with a heavy South African accent. “Hello, I am Marol Pemberton reporting for the Discovery Channel, and I am outside Chauvet Cave. It is unique the world over for the ancient pictographs that line the limestone walls.

A cave bear skull sits on a stone pedestal guarding the cave's entrance. There is a chapel and an altar inside. The chapel walls are lined with thirty-thousand-year-old painted images of horses, bears, and tigers; even mammoths can be found on the walls of this ancient chapel. These were prehistoric man's attempt to document the mysteries of his world.”

“Cut! Good job, Marol,” the cameraman said. Hugh was Marol’s older brother, a handsome, muscular fellow with dirty blonde hair. He and his sister both had light brown freckles covering their faces. They had developed a lucrative and entertaining business traveling the world in search of beauty, mystery and whatever else struck their fancy.

“Let’s walk over to the entrance where we’ll introduce the others,” he said. Clicking the camera off, he bent to grab his bag and leaned against the hillside to allow the others to pass.

“Marol, stay back with Rory and Katie so I can film Gerard working the dogs.” Picking up his camera, Hugh followed behind a fellow walking two dogs on long leashes. They stopped periodically to sniff the rock piles and grottos.

“What are they looking for?” Katie asked Gerard as she stroked one of the dogs.

“They’re sniffing for updrafts. Caves have particular smells, and these two are trained to find the scents. The men who discovered Chauvet Cave sensed a subtle airflow and began clearing away rocks. The narrow shaft they found led to a cave sealed by rock slides many millennia earlier.”

“Can the dogs sniff dangerous fumes, pockets of deadly gases?” Rory asked.

Gerard chuckled, shaking his head. “Many wrongly believe cave air is stuffy, unhealthy, low in oxygen content and saturated with toxic gases. However, this stems from the confusion between natural caves and mines. In man-made mines air circulation is slow, requiring a mechanical aid to guarantee the health of the miners working in them and to channel out waste substances produced by the machinery. So, we don’t do mines.”

“Why are caves safer?” Katie asked.

“Because they leak like sieves, so they have excellent airflow turnover,” Gerard explained.

“Caves are complex systems that have more than one entrance and communicate with the surface through a system of fractures and small conduits. Caves can breathe; the air currents that form inside a cave become more intense when the difference between the internal and external temperatures increases. Hence the air inside a cave is continually mixed, and there is never a problem with lack of air or oxygen.”

“But tropical caves are different,” Gerard's partner said. “Their higher temperatures and humidity levels create an element of danger, especially in caves with bats. Guano fermentation forms pockets of CO2, causing fatigue and exhaustion in humans. We use a torch for a warning device. If the acetylene flame will not stay lit it is too dangerous to proceed.”

Hugh stopped filming the dogs when Marol signaled that she was ready. She now stood in front of the entrance to the cave. “Ready,” Marol said as she placed the script at her feet.

“Action!” Hugh began filming.

“This is the entrance to a cave discovered by three explorers a few days before Christmas, 1994. The opening was so narrow they could barely squeeze through it. Descending into the unknown, these men made one of the most significant discoveries in the history of human culture.

Although the spelunkers felt it a particularly beautiful cavern, at first, Chauvet Cave didn’t seem to be unique. However deep inside they found scores of figures painted in black and ochre on the white limestone walls. These are the oldest cave paintings ever seen and have been dated back 32,000 years.”

She picked up the script before continuing. Nodding her head, she resumed her take.

“The narrow tunnel through which the discoverers crawled has been widened and secured with a massive steel door, like a bank vault. A guard is always posted, and Jean is here today to allow us in and give us safety instructions.”

Marol turned the microphone to a fellow standing in front of the door. He nodded and cleared his throat, speaking English with a definite French accent. “Once we pass through the door it will be locked behind us so as not to compromise the delicate climate inside,” he explained as he led the group inside.

“Why are you closing the door?” Rory asked.

“To keep people out. We allow only a handful of people inside each week,” Jeane explained. “This cave was discovered in 1994. Another cave with paintings, was discovered at Lascaux fifty years earlier and was opened to tourism after the war in 1948. By 1955, the influx of 1,200 daily visitors had taken its toll; too many people brought too much heat, humidity, carbon dioxide, and other contaminants, altering the climate in the caves, resulting in increased condensation and the introduction of lichens and molds, which were damaging the paintings. It was closed with a similar steel door in 1963 to help preserve the art.”

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Outside Chauvet Cave, Chapter 6

Right at the very end of the Last Chamber a hanging rock formation reaches down from the ceiling to a metre off the ground. This striking natural relief, as you might expect, is adorned with black drawings and engravings: four lions, one horse, two mammoths, one musk ox and a composition creature - half human and half bison - referred to as the Sorcerer. Beside it there is drawn the front view of a woman's lower body with long tapering legs. Her pubic triangle and her vulva are clearly drawn. The Sorcerer's figure folds around and faces in to the pubic triangle. This is certainly a powerful composition, perhaps symbolising a relationship between a mortal woman and a supernatural animal spirit.

Facing Horses

These four horses occupy a small recess in the Chauvet Cave. They bare similar artistic attributes. The artist used fingers to mix and spread a charcoal paste and applied it in order to emphasize the main outlines and give relief and shading to the heads. Notice another figure drawn subsequently, that of a large lion drawn facing to the right [its hindquarters and tail are clearly visible], but without interrupting the lines of the earlier horses [except the lower horse]

Panel of Lions

The wall to the right of the central recess has a large number of animals drawn on to it. The overall scene depicts a hunt. On the right of the composition there is a rhinoceros and a mammoth. On the left, there are four bison heads, and two more rhinos. Then there are seven bison, pursued by a pride of sixteen lions, mainly depicted by their heads alone. Above all of this drama, at a different scale, there is a large feline figure shown standing face to face with a lion cub. Almost all of the animals on this panel face left. This composition is unique in Palaeolithic art.

FIGHTING RHINO & HORSES

This is considered one of the most important panels of the Chauvet Cave. It contains twenty animals. The drama is clear to see, highlighted by the rhinoceroses confronting each other. This is unique in Palaeolithic cave art. The two rhinos were drawn at the same time, probably by the same artist. The charcoal used has been dated between approximately 30,000 and 32,000 years before present.

The four horses heads were drawn in charcoal after the rhinos as well as the other animals - two more rhinos, a stag and two mammoths - on this panel, which as elsewhere in the cave had been prepared and scraped. Of the four horses, the top one was drawn first and the lowest one drawn last. The artist who drew the horses - almost certainly one artist - mixed the charcoal with the surface clay to obtain various hues and visual effects [shading and perspective]. The technique was stump-drawing, as well as scraping the outer edges of the images to highlight them with a pale aura.

THE RED BEARS. A number of cave bears are depicted in Chauvet. Cave bears are identifiable by the steep incline of their foreheads. These three bears are found near the prehistoric entrance [not the present entrance] to the cave, on a panel in a small recess. The bears are painted in red. The central bear has been painted using the natural relief in the cave wall, with the shoulder following the line of the rock surface. This is a common artistic technique employed in prehistoric parietal art, suggesting that the cave wall topography whilst seen by torch light inspired the subject matter. The central bear is a complete figure, whilst to the left of it is an isolated bear head, and to the right of it a near complete bear. This may depict a sleuth of bears. The artist used a technique known as 'stump-drawing' - the use of fingers or a piece of hide to paint the muzzle and to emphasize the outlines of the head and forequarters; a form of perspective.

Bear Skull Altar. Another example of religious activity within the cave can be found in the Skull Chamber. In this space it is possible to see prints and bones on the floor, and on the walls, claw marks, engravings, paintings, hand prints and torch wipes. But in the very centre a cave bear skull was moved and placed on the rock. This would have been done either 32,000 to 30,000 or 27,000 to 26,000 years ago.

A Paleolithic man elevated the female genital to the realm of the Gods when he painstakingly painted a woman's pubic triangle on the wall of this mystical place. Knowing life springs forth from the tunnel of a woman, emerging from her vulvar lips, these prehistoric shamen believed caves carried similar life-giving powers.

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